Are You Listening to Me? Personality Type and Communication
Copyright © 2019 by Thomas Piccin
One of the most common issues a Myers-Briggs practitioner is called upon to address is that of “communication problems” in the workplace (Myers et al., 2009). Indeed, when it comes to creating and maintaining effective and successful relationships—in the workplace or anywhere else—what factor is more important than communication? Tension and frustration among team members can escalate while engagement and morale decline when people feel they are not being given a chance to talk, they are not being heard, or what they say isn’t being valued.
Very often, communication breakdowns of this sort can be attributed to differences in personality type. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) can be a very useful tool for helping us to identify and understand the ways that healthy, well-meaning people can differ in terms of how they prefer to communicate. The fact that I said how people “prefer” to communicate is noteworthy, because the concept of preference is a very important one in the Myers-Briggs world.
According to the Myers-Briggs model, every person has a particular personality type, which reflects the ways in which it is most natural and most comfortable for them to learn, think, take in information, make decisions, and communicate. However, a tenet of the model is that people are never “stuck” in their type; they always have the freedom to make a different choice if the situation warrants it, what we call “flexing.” Their type represents their favorite way of thinking, not their only way.
A very common and potentially troublesome scenario occurs when a person who prefers introversion (let’s call her Isabel) interacts with a person who prefers extraversion (let's say Emily). If Emily is talking, she will likely talk quickly and often, developing her ideas aloud as she is speaking. Meanwhile, Isabel will probably be silent, listening to and processing internally what Emily is saying.
Trouble can arise quickly. Emily may become frustrated because she is not getting any feedback from Isabel, who is thinking silently, formulating her response, and waiting for Emily to finish. This frustration may cause Emily to wonder if Isabel is listening to her, and may lead Emily to talk even more quickly and more often, requiring Isabel to concentrate even harder on listening.
Meanwhile, when Isabel does respond, Emily may interrupt her, because Emily is engaged and processing aloud what she is hearing Isabel say. But the interruption disrupts Isabel’s train of thought, because she processes internally, not externally. Furthermore, the interruption may be interpreted by Isabel as a sign that Emily doesn’t really care about what she has to say. This could cause Isabel to become disengaged from the conversation and give even less feedback to Emily. And so it goes.
Here you have two good-hearted people trying their best to communicate, but each one leaves the failed conversation believing the other was to blame for the breakdown. And we can see many other similar communication conflicts when we look at the other cognitive functions identified by the MBTI.
One person likes to focus on practical, realistic data while another prefers a creative and imaginative view. One person wants to make a fair decision by remaining objective, while another feels fairness is best achieved by considering people’s individual needs. One person supports his teammates by carefully sticking to a detailed schedule, while another thinks it’s more helpful to remain open to all possibilities until the last minute.
I hope you will agree that in all of these examples, there is value in both approaches. The people involved may butt heads, not because one is wrong and the other right, but because both are unaware that their own cognitive preferences are different from those of the other.
Imagine how much stronger they would be as a team if they understood their differences and worked together to combine their strengths. That’s the value offered by the MBTI. And it starts with knowing your own type, understanding how your type differs from the types of the people around you, and accepting that all types have something valuable to offer.
Myers, I.B., McCaulley, M.H., Quenk, N.L., & Hammer, A.L. (2009). MBTI manual (3rd ed.). Mountain View, CA: CPP, Inc.
Header photo by Thomas Piccin. View of Cape Town, Signal Hill, Table Bay, and Robben Island from the top of Table Mountain, South Africa.